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Different season, same enthusiasm

Peninsula mat rooms look past awkward situation wrestling faces

Posted: Friday, October 13, 2000

One thing every wrestler knows how to do is make the best of an awkward situation.

If you simply quit when lying prone with your arm twisted behind your back and a knee wrenched in your gut to hamper breathing, you won't be a wrestler for very long.

That's why it came as no surprise that enthusiasm abounded in a tour of Kenai Peninsula mat rooms last week despite the tough position the sport has been placed in.

Last year, the Alaska School Activities Association voted to create two separate seasons for wrestling in Alaska -- one in the fall and one in the spring.

Further, ASAA placed no classification limits on the seasons, meaning any school, no matter how big or small, could wrestle in whatever season it chose.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson decided that all peninsula schools would wrestle in the fall.

That meant peninsula schools Homer, Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai -- Class 4A schools or schools with more than 400 students -- were separated from the majority of the other 4A schools in the state, which are wrestling in the spring.

It also meant schools with less than 400 students would now have to battle Class 4A schools for a state team title.

In all, about 55 schools will wrestle for the state title in the fall, with most of those schools being small Bush schools. The spring title will be up for grabs to mostly 4A schools in Kodiak, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna valleys and Fairbanks. In all, that's 17 schools.

Last fall, some of the most vocal protests of the new season came from Skyview, which had won Class 4A state titles in two of the past four years and wasn't happy about being stripped of the opportunity to compete with the big boys.

Panthers coach Neldon Gardner still isn't totally happy with the way things are, but that doesn't mean he isn't pumped up about the season, which will end with the state tournament on Dec. 16.

"We're going to have to hit the ground running," Gardner said. "This season, you're going to have to wrestle hard every weekend. There's no letting up.

"That's exciting."

Gardner, who has 12 seniors on his squad, knows that if his team does let up there are a number of teams that could win state.

One of those teams is Seward, which won the small-schools state title last year. Despite the loss of 12 seniors, Seahawks coach Ronn Hemstock is not backing down from facing bigger schools like Skyview.

"Last year, we beat Service's varsity toe-to-toe at our tournament, and they were 4A state champs," Hemstock said.

He added that he would not be surprised to see his team score more points at state this year than it did last year.

One other small school that also has its eyes on the state prize despite the presence of big schools is Nikiski. The Bulldogs finished second at small-schools state to Seward last year, breaking a run of four straight state titles.

Nikiski also is feeling pretty good about itself after toppling Class 4A Soldotna for the small-schools state football title.

"There's a lot of pride in that room," said David Martian, who takes over as head coach for Steve Gillaspie. "There's still kind of a sting from last year.

"They're pretty focused on (state) already."

Coaches mentioned a number of other schools with a shot at taking state, including Anchorage Christian Schools, Southeast wild cards Juneau and Ketchikan, and Houston, which won the Ninilchik Invitational last weekend.

As for Class 4A schools Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, they think not competing against other 4A schools is a good fit for them because their teams are, for the most part, made up of wrestlers without a ton of experience.

Despite the upbeat mat rooms, though, some problems were apparent. Gardner, who has about 40 wrestlers out, is concerned about getting them matches. Most of the other schools have under 30 wrestlers out.

There also is concern about the lack of a break between the football and wrestling seasons. Nikiski and Soldotna were playing the state football final during the season's first wrestling meet.

Martian said 13 of his 25 wrestlers had not practiced yet due to football. Meanwhile, Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell, also a defensive coordinator, missed the first couple of weeks of wrestling practice.

He said he lost a couple of kids, at least temporarily, because of his absence.

However, Truesdell, a three-time All American at Valley City State University in Valley City, N.D., wasn't about to let the unfortunate timing of the season affect him.

"It's going to be fine," said Truesdell as he took a break from running laps with the team in the SoHi hallways Monday. "I was going full speed ahead with football, and I'm going full speed ahead with this now."

The following is a closer look at the peninsula's wrestling programs:

HOMER MARINERS

Chris Perk, a 1993 graduate of Homer, takes over the high school program after coaching the sport for three years at Homer Middle School.

Perk is taking a typical approach to building a program. He has concentrated on getting freshmen out so the program can grow as they do.

The Mariners have 15 to 20 wrestlers in the mat room, and the majority of them are freshmen.

Two freshman who should have a big impact are Devion Hagen, who won at 103 pounds at Ninilchik, and Monte Garroutte, a 119-pounder who was a two-time borough champion in middle school.

Junior Rick Corazza (189 pounds) and senior Chris Fraker (160 pounds) will add some experience to the mix.

KENAI KARDINALS

The Kardinals also are happy to take the up-and-coming label. Last year, in Roy McKenzie's first year as coach, Kenai had just four kids in the mat room on the first day of practice.

This year, Kenai has about 20 in the mat room.

"We've done a lot of recruiting," McKenzie said. "We've got 10 freshmen out. The junior high coach does a great job of getting kids involved."

While last year was a rebuilding year, McKenzie wants to start bringing home some individual trophies and serious team points this year.

However, he also knows a state title is still out of reach.

Leading the Kardinals will be senior Charlie Wiles at 152 or 160 and junior Jacob La Shot at 125 or 130. La Shot was the only Kenai wrestler to make it to state last year.

McKenzie also expects key contributions from senior William Harper at 171, juniors Kenny Butler (140) and Scott Kornfield (145) and freshman Jacob Madrid (119).

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Martian has big shoes to fill because Gillaspie won state titles in four of the six years he coached at Nikiski.

"It'll be pretty hard to fill his shoes," said Martian, who was an assistant at Nikiski last year. "He did so much for kids and it wasn't just in the sport of wrestling."

Gillaspie left the program stocked with talent, and the freshmen class has eight or 12 members Martian is really excited about.

Leading Nikiski is senior Chris Roofe (152, 160), who is a state champ and runner-up; senior Josh Meeks (152, 160), who was fifth at state last year; junior Chris McCaughey (119, 125), who has been second and third in state; junior Steven Calderwood (145), who was fifth in the state last year; junior Neil Fucci (130, 135), a defending state champion; and sophomore Joey Wicker (112), who was fifth in the state as a freshman.

Other solid contributors will be junior Gabe Lavigueur (171, 189), junior Kyle Alexander (171), freshman Josh Huhndorf (103), sophomore Anthony Luna (heavyweight), senior Tela O'Donnell (119) and junior Wayne Aitken (119).

NINILCHIK WOLVERINES

Coach Ron Records, who has been the coach on and off for 15 years, has 16 kids in his room this year. He said that is one of the biggest turnouts he can remember for the team.

"It's going to be tough for a school with a population like ours to do well as a team, especially against 4A schools," Records said. "We still have some individuals that are going to do pretty good."

One of those individuals is senior Rex Savely, who was second in the state last year at 119. Other wrestlers Records is looking to put in the state tournament are senior Chris Kruzick (135), junior John Matson (152) and sophomore Steve Miller (125).

"I'm looking forward to sending a lot more kids to state this year," Records said. "More kids are coming out of regions in each age bracket.

"We had a tough region in the past and it seemed like we always had a lot of kids one place from going to state. This year, that place will go to state."

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

Hemstock said the team is displaying the same work ethic that led to state success last year.

"They're showing a lot of team spirit and they're working hard," he said. "I couldn't be happier."

Two of the Seahawks' top wrestlers will be senior Eric Higbee (103) and junior Darian Draper. Higbee won state last year, while Draper was third at state after absorbing his first loss of the year in the state semifinals.

SKYVIEW PANTHERS

The Panthers feel so good about this year's team that Gardner will be taking eight to 10 varsity wrestlers to a tournament in Reno, Nev., the weekend after the state tournament. The tournament is the second-largest high school tournament in the country and attracts 70 to 80 teams.

But before that, the experienced Panthers, with 12 seniors, have some business to take care of in Alaska.

Some top returners are senior Neil Strausbaugh (125, 130), who was first and second in the state the last two years; junior Vance Gaddis (189, 215), who went to state last year; senior Ian Leach (135, 140), who finished fifth at state last year; and senior Chris Rice (152), who was fourth and second at state the last two years.

Other Panthers with state experience are senior Melina Hutchison (119), senior James Sadler (140), senior Ronnie Plate (160) and junior Ben Nabinger (135).

Gardner also expects a lot of points from sophomore Cody Phipps (103), junior Matt Karron (145, 140), junior Nate Morse (145), junior Mark Rozak (160), sophomore Justin Rainwater (152) and senior Carey Johnson (171).

SOLDOTNA STARS

Truesdell, in his second year at the helm of the Stars, has a program that, like Kenai and Homer, is definitely on its way up.

The Stars have four seniors, three juniors and 13 or 14 sophomores out of the 25 or so in the mat room.

"I'm really looking forward to getting the young guys a lot of competition," Truesdell said. "Even though we won't see some of the state's best wrestlers, we still have 60 schools in the state to wrestle against.

"That's what we need right now."

Truesdell has a number of returning state qualifiers set to lead his team. The returning state qualifiers are senior Jared Carlson (145, 152), junior Roy Stonecipher (heavyweight), sophomore John Howarth (145) and sophomore Colton Goracke (140).



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